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Mumbo Gumbo

The Big Easy does it: Petra Barnes and Michael Walker at Petra's.

Years from now, we'll look back at the turn of the century and remember a time when you could have cybersex with a perfect stranger who remained a perfect stranger, buy a car from someone whose hand you never shook and have your precious retirement money moved around by someone who might have possessed the professional business presence of a crack dealer -- who knew? But by then, state-of-the-art photo imaging will make it possible to see the people you're dealing with on the Internet, and service will become a little more personal again.

Right now, it doesn't get more personal than at Petra's. Owner Petra Barnes is easy to identify: Her face is on the menu, and there's no mistaking her leggy frame as she races around, trying to make sure that everyone's needs are met. And more often that not, she succeeds. But how could she miss? This New Orleans-themed eatery serves up down-home standards and quirky, contemporary twists on Southern classics, all in a Mardi Gras atmosphere -- complete with fiberglass cutouts of saxophone players, vibrant wall murals depicting scenes straight from Bourbon Street, and a patio that's as inviting as a cool breeze in the French Quarter. Let the good times roll!

Barnes and her fiancé, Michael Walker, opened the restaurant last December, after running a Denver catering company called Classic Gourmet for six years. Finally, the engaging Barnes explains, she decided it was time to have a place of their own. "I never wanted to be one of those 'what if?' types of people," she says. "I said, 'Are we going to get to the end of our lives and say we wish we'd done it?' No, thanks."

And so she and Walker -- whom she'd met in a fairy-tale sort of way, just like his parents and grandparents had, at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff -- dug around in their basements and files to find all the favorite family recipes from their childhoods. Most of Barnes's was spent in Illinois, but her grandmother had lived in Mississippi; although Walker moved to Denver when he was ten, his family had roots in New Orleans. So both had a lot of Southern cooking in their background. "Almost all of the food we do here at Petra's comes from our grandparents' recipes," Barnes says. "David does the cream sauces and the specials, but the things like gumbo and catfish are right from Michael's and my heritage."

"David" is David Dreps, Petra's chef, whose dishes have been improving steadily since the restaurant opened. But the intimate touches provided by Walker and Barnes, along with their constant presence at the restaurant, are what make Petra's special.

On my first visit, I happened to mention to Petra that I was out for a relaxing solo evening, without children and with a pile of magazines that had been stacking up for months. Quick as a wink, she handed me a complimentary Blue Hawaii -- a potent blend of rum, Cointreau and blue Curaçao. "You just settle in there," she said. "I'll bet you've earned it." She was right, and I deserved not just pampering, but the fabulous food that followed, starting with the crunchy-shelled crawfish cakes ($7.95) filled with sweet, cayenne-fired crawfish meat that got an extra boost from a rich, spicy aioli.

From there, it was just a hop, skip and jump across the Bayou to some gumbo. Although the dish's name is an African Bantu word that refers to okra, that item is often missing from gumbo, since many palates find the vegetable slimy. Petra's skips the okra, too, instead using filé powder (the dried, ground leaves of sassafras) as the thickener; more of the powder is offered at the table, in case you like your gumbo even gummier. (Since the kitchen usually waits until the end of the cooking process to add the powder, it doesn't hurt the gumbo's taste to add still more later on.) Dreps cooked up a traditional, if okra-less, Louisiana-style gumbo ($6.95) that featured a sharp, peppery bite and tons of shrimp and crab floating in a beautifully thickened roux; he proved equally adept at a funky update, the spice-mild but earthy and pungent smoked-duck-and-wild-mushroom gumbo ($5.75). Another quintessential Creole dish, jambalaya ($6.25), is offered only as an appetizer at Petra's. While this dish's name is thought to come from the French jambon, or ham, even in N'awlins, some chefs skip the ham and rely solely on spicy sausages such as andouille to impart the smokiness so characteristic of jambalaya. Petra's sliced the sausage to make it even more a part of the stew, with bits of okra added to the thick, tomato-rich base.

Petra's entrees fall into two primary categories: fried items and not-fried items. Among the former, you can't go wrong with the catfish, oyster and shrimp platter ($17.95), which brought a hefty piece of cat and reasonably sized piles of oysters and shrimp, all lightly coated in a crumbly batter that wasn't too greasy and tasted of the seafood inside rather than the fryer. The soft-shell crab platter ($19.95) was another marvel, offering three juice-oozing specimens covered with seasoned cornbread crumbs. A lightly creamy coleslaw and choice of sides -- the sugary-sweet sweet-potato French fries were to die for, and the cheese-packed grits so hearty you could swear off starch for a month -- finished off those platters. From the non-fried side, the innovative andouille-crusted snapper ($17.95) was a moist-inside, sausage-spicy-outside piece of fish; an order of blackened chicken ($14.95) brought half a bird whose nicely coated, fiery exterior was well-balanced by a super-rich cream sauce strewn with fresh basil.

After all that heat, cooling desserts were called for, and Petra's again delivered. A thick, deeply custardy crème brûlée ($5) and a wedge of gooey pecan pie ($6.50) satisfied our need for something both sweet and palate-cleansing.

I'll be seeing Petra, and Petra's, again. Soon.

At Pappadeaux, the hardworking staff is friendly and accommodating, but congenial servers can't make up for the calculated, cookie-cutter atmosphere, or food that seems to have been created by a computer working off the menu of a New Orleans-themed Red Lobster. This Greenwood Village outlet is a relatively new link in a popular Texas-based chain; the cutesy story is that the owner, H.D. Pappas, who also started the infamous Greek-themed Pappas restaurants throughout Texas and Arkansas, had a Cajun cousin named Pappadeaux who shared his cooking secrets with H.D. The uncutesy part is that on weekends, it can take up to two hours to get a table -- and the meal doesn't justify the wait.

Not that Pappadeaux is without charms. The entranceway is very inviting, with a tile-lined fountain and foliage-framed pergolas along an expansive walkway (perhaps designed to lengthen the time it takes to get to the waiting list?). And those servers hustle like few others in town. But they have to, because the dining area is a cavernous, upscale Cajun mess hall, with zydeco keeping the background beat and more fried foods than Paul Prudhomme has fat cells. There are fried frogs' legs and fried alligator, fried crawfish and oysters, fried shrimp, fried catfish, fried chicken tenderloins and fried calamari -- some definitely better than others. I've tried the frogs' legs ($6.95) twice, and both times they had no kick; you have to fry these up really quickly, or the meat seizes up and dries out. The crawfish ($6.95) were much more successful; Pappadeaux's good, light batter worked well on the sweet meat. The French fries were positively addictive: fat, puffy, soft-centered, slightly crunchy, faintly greasy, and gently coated with a mildly seasoned salt that made it impossible to stop eating them.

But we had to, if we wanted to make a dent in any of our other dishes. Plate overload is one of Pappadeaux's more obvious appeals, and it goes a long way toward explaining why people are willing to give up an extra hour or two of their lives in order to wait in a chaotic foyer for food they could get elsewhere, more quickly, and often better. For instance, the oysters Pappadeaux ($7.95) were essentially Rockefeller with crabmeat added, but there was so much spinach piled on each bivalve that finding an oyster -- and then tasting it -- was like deep-sea diving in an underwater forest. And the starter crabcakes ($9.95) were crumb-packed hockey pucks filled with squishy crabmeat, sitting on an oddly sweet and too buttery beurre blanc sauce.

The seafood platter ($15.75) was a mixed catch. It included three butterflied and greasy shrimp, one stuffed shrimp that looked like it was on steroids and tasted like a wad of deep-fried cotton, and a stuffed crab that contained too much green pepper. But the catfish was juicy and tasty, with a crackly, peppery crust. In general, Pappadeaux's kitchen did better with simpler fare. The Alaskan halibut ($20.95), for example, was pan-broiled until just undercooked, so that the firm-fleshed fish was still moist and slightly translucent. The lobster tail ($42 for a 1 1/2-pounder) was also blessedly undercooked, which left the meat tender and wet; thoughtfully, the kitchen had done most of the shell-cracking for us. But next to the lobster, that same kitchen had plopped almost a whole head of nearly raw broccoli, along with a side of weird, somewhat cheese-like sauce that was very rich but unsettlingly unidentifiable.

The crawfish étoufée ($14.95) was a runny mess. Although the dish's name means "smothered," it refers to a cooking process that involves little or no liquid in a tightly closed pot. Here it looked like the crawfish had been boiled to death in a green-pepper-heavy sauce. And the kitchen's production problems didn't stop there: The blackened chicken Orleans ($14.95) was dry; the crawfish bisque ($4.95 a cup) was so thick we could have eaten it with a fork (I think it was the end of the pot); and the caramel-glazed salmon ($12.95) was overcooked and piled on very bruised greens. When a hectic kitchen is putting out such obscene amounts of food, someone --or something -- is bound to get hurt.

And speaking of obscene, if there's a dessert that's more so than Pappadeaux's Oreo-cookie mousse ($5.95), I'd like to see it. An enormous ball of too-dense mousse with Oreo cookies hidden inside sat encased in so much Oreo cookie-crumb crust that it looked as if the head of a bald man wearing a black turtleneck had been plunked down on a plate.

Too bad he wasn't Pappadeaux's owner. I would have liked to have had a little chat with him, face-to-face.

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Petras Restaurant - Closed

2500 York St
Denver, CO 80205

303-377-5100


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